I almost didn’t go see Days of Wine and Roses: The Musical because my memories of the highly regarded 1962 film—directed by Blake Edwards and written by J.P. Miller—aren’t all that warm. I distinctly remember thinking, “So just stop drinking already!” I was able to appreciate Edwards’s artful direction, even at age 20, along with Miller’s subtle and perceptive story of enabling and co-dependency, and Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick’s fine performances (Lemmon was a real actor before he began leaning on mugging and shtick). But something in me resisted extolling a work principally dedicated to depicting an addiction in gory detail—especially an addiction like alcoholism, so widely and manipulatively touted as a “disease.” The 1958 Days of Wine and Roses teleplay by Miller that preceded the movie was (as I recently learned after looking it up) a veritable PSA for AA. Lurid, noir-ish, overwrought—it’s like Reefer Madness for drinking.

Drama is usually compelling because of the human choices it depicts, preferably fateful ones. Watching a disease process ply a destructive path over several hours isn’t interesting in itself; in fact it’s a chore unless questions of choice and responsibility spring up. Death of a Salesman, as it happens, sparked a debate on just this question when it first appeared in 1949. The loudest fan chorus, then as now, celebrated it as a tragic portrait of a common man destroyed by the false seductions of the American dream. Yet a few perceptive critics pointed out that Willy Loman was mentally ill. Was a sick man really the best carrier of such an important political banner? By now, of course, this question has been hopelessly suppressed by the juggernaut making Willy into a holy martyr, but it was, and still is, worth asking.

I’m delighted to report that Days of Wine and Roses: The Musical is a triumph. Directed by Michael Greif, it’s the first collaboration between playwright Craig Lucas and composer-lyricist Adam Guettel since their triumphal Light in the Piazza in 2005, and it recently transferred to Broadway from the Atlantic Theater. The music is remarkably textured and used in wonderfully original ways, effectively replacing dialogue in key exchanges and vividly expressing the complex humanity of the two very troubled people at the story’s center. Kelli O’Hara and Brian D’Arcy James are searingly powerful in the starring roles, particularly O’Hara. Both are exceptionally attuned both to the acting and singing demands of their separate roles, and also to one another. The show is 100 intermissionless minutes and never droops or lags.

Most important, though, is that this musical owes its surprising power to a number of small adjustments that shifted the emphasis in the material toward personal responsibility and away from the putative disease-process of alcoholism.

The chief adjustment is in the casting of O’Hara. This actress has shown in a string of lead performances in brilliant recent revivals of classic musicals (The Pajama Game, South Pacific, The King and I, Kiss Me, Kate) that she is uniquely adept at portraying women from the Eisenhower era in ways that subtly acknowledge how much water has passed under the feminist bridge since then. Her angelic voice aside, she has a knack for finding just the right knowing cock of the head, or steely tone, or longer hold on a man’s gaze, that makes her characters seem rooted in the present as well as the past. Kirsten Arnesen, whom she plays in Days of Wine and Roses, is a secretary who never went to college but loves literature and can recite works like “Gray’s Elegy” from memory. On the musical stage, she’s never shown as a subordinate in an office, always instead as a vivid, independent presence in places (such as a party, or a restaurant) where she can stand out as memorable—a person of palpable worth in the world. That goes a long way toward explaining why her fall ultimately feels so tragic, rather than merely pathetic.

It was Brecht who first observed that the stage has a structural advantage over film in conveying savviness, because of its inherent artificiality. Except in the most hermetically sealed naturalism, stage performers more readily strike us as making choices rather than succumbing to overwhelming forces, as in film, if only because the seams of planning and rehearsal are never quite erased in theater. Our awareness of the labor behind the art can help keep it engaging, sharp-edged, and multidimensional—that is, when the artists involved care to use it that way.

That element, I believe, is crucial in this show. You don’t realize until about 20 minutes in—and then it hits you like a pitcher of cold water—that O’Hara and James are the only ones in the ten-member cast who sing. (There’s one exception near the end—a brief number with the couple’s daughter.) The effect of this is extraordinary. The sonic separation of the cast creates the impression of a partitioned world in which one reality is poetic, musical and lubricated with alcohol, whereas the other is prosaic, spoken and burdened with the dry and terrifying clarity of everydayness.

Kirsten complains at one point, “The world is so dirty to me when I’m not drinking,” and this line has no particular resonance in the movie. Lee Remick speaks it as a degraded wretch whom we can’t help but judge because we feel we’re better than her. Spoken onstage now by O’Hara, the line lands profoundly because it’s a description of an experience we’ve also just had. By this point, we’ve been listening to her and James sing their guts out for 100 minutes in a truly remarkable string of difficult and various numbers, used to convey how their characters creatively seek, invent, re-invent, abuse, and ultimately sacrifice their love for one another. Regrets about this, if they come at all, are for ourselves as much as for the divinely voiced wretches in front of us.

Days of Wine and Roses: The Musical. Book by Craig Lucas, music & lyrics by Adam Guettel, directed by Michael Greif, at Studio 54. Photos: Joan Marcus.

Before the pandemic, Jesse McKinley published a piece in the New York Times about the ubiquity of new plays about addiction in the recent American theater. He mentioned, among others: Craig Lucas’s I Was Most Alive With You; Catya McMullen’s George Mertching is Dead; Sean Daniels’s The White Chip; Dave Malloy’s Octet; Quiara Alegria Hudes’s Water By the Spoonful; Adam Bock’s Before the Meeting; and Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places & Things. I might have added half a dozen more. Clearly, this theme is everywhere (and I haven’t even mentioned the fresh wave of opiate plays) and not going out of style any time soon. Yes, several of these plays are good. Nevertheless, too much work of this kind is driven by shallow, social-media-sanctioned confessionality and wrongly presumes the public’s automatic interest in addiction as a disease-process.

Part of the marvel of Days of Wine and Roses: the Musical for me is how rare it is for any show to rise out of that all-too-common rut. I, for one, expected nothing from this work before seeing it and now consider it the best musical I’ve seen this year.


This article appeared in TheaterMatters on February 13, 2024, and has been reposted with permission. To read the original article, please click here.

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This post was written by Jonathan Kalb.

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